Going home without my burden

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Some things are too close. Too personal. As Leonard Cohen put it in his songs Going Home and If It Be Your Will, my best friend over the past 55 years has “gone home without his burden, [gone] home behind the curtain without the costume that he wore.”

Wayne Granberry Boulton — click HERE for the obituary — died peacefully at home in Indianapolis under the tender care of the love of his life — his one and only wife — and their older son Matthew (Matt).

The costumes Wayne wore were academic (Duke Ph.D.) and ecclesiastical (McCormick Theological Seminary M.Div.) robes, but these costumes were faint glimpses into his underlying character.

Harry Strong, Vicki Boulton, Wayne Boulton, Gordon, Nadja Shoemaker, Steve Shoemaker (seated), Divide CO, 2006

Knowing the hospice drugs soon would ease him into wherever people go at the end of life, I visited Wayne and Vicki, Matt and Chris and all the Boulton family in Indianapolis two weeks ago. Wayne’s mind was still clear and sharp. His heart, which was always big, without ever being sloppy, was closer to his sleeve.

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will [Leonard Cohen, If It Be Your Will]

“Hi, my name’s Wayne Boulton,” said the new roommate in 1964, where we had been assigned to Alumni Hall Room 312 by the housing office at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. Although he had arrived hours before my key opened the door, he had not yet chosen which of the two beds, desks, and dressers would be his. That was the first clue that my roommate was un-selfish.

We were roommates for two years until he exchanged vows with Vicki in 1966. I was to be Wayne’s Best Man, but that was before the Chicago Chapter of the Experiment in International Living sent me packing to Czechoslovakia that summer, reducing my status to “would-have-been/ could-have-been/ should have been” Wayne’s Best-Man. When I returned to the States, Vicki had become the roommate to whom he had pledged his troth.

If it be your will
That a voice be true

Wayne’s word was his bond. He was loyal. Honoring his family and friends came second only to honoring the First Commandment to have no other gods but I AM. Wayne knew that we are covenantal creatures whose joy is found in steadfast love, a voice that is true to itself. Wayne did not sing of himself. Self-promotion was not his thing. Close to being fitted for the MBA costume of Northwestern University’s School of Business, he left the fitting room to prepare for a different robe in service to the church and the academy.

From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

It was during the Lafayette College choir concert at Westbury High School that Wayne and Vicki met. The love at first sight led to the births of Matthew and Christopher, and stayed fresh until there were no more costumes. What began with the twinkling of an eye ended the same way — with thanksgiving washed by tears.

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
where it’s better
Than before

No compassionate person would wish that a loved one with terminal pancreatic cancer continue to wear the patient’s costume. “I’m dying,” he wrote to the members of the wide circle of friends he had gathered. Former students, faculty colleagues, and neighbors in Holland, Michigan and in Richmond, Virginia;  members of the churches he’d served in Maryland, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, and the  latest friends in Indianapolis. He embraced the coming end of life, neither denying death’s finality nor betraying his deepest conviction: “in life and in death, we belong to God.”

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without this costume
That I wore. [Leonard Cohen]

The loss of of a best friend hits hard, no matter how much we expected it. “Hey, Roomie” was the way he began our phone calls. Choking through the tears on this side of the curtain, I give thanks that my roommate has “gone home/Without [his] burden/Behind the curtain/Without the costume/That [he] wore,” and pray against all my doubts, that some other strangers may be greeted the way I was:

“Hi, my name’s Wayne Boulton.”

Wayne wearing Chicago Dogs shirt in honor of seminary friends who call ourselves “The Dogs”

And draw us near
And bind us tight
All your children here
In their rags of light
In our rags of light
All dressed to kill
And end this night
If it be your will

If it be your will [Leonard Cohen, If It Be Your Will]

— Gordon C. Stewart, one four remaining Dogs “bound tight . . . . in our rags of light,” Chaska, MN, February 4, 2019.

Weary Traveler

I wrote this piece a year ago during the nuclear reactors crisis in Japan. Today, one day before the second anniversary of step-daughter Katherine’s death at the age of 33, I brought it out of mothballs for those who may be feeling weary.

“Don’t be weary, traveler, Come along home, come home.  Don’t be weary traveler, come along home.  Come home.”

“Weary Traveler” was a slave song that expresses what prose cannot say.

I am wearied by the news of homeless people in Japan. I am weary hearing of nuclear explosions and possible meltdowns.  I am weary of what human ingenuity has done and is doing to the oceans, the wetlands, and the coastlands. I am weary of the things that lay beyond control. I feel helpless to help.  I am preoccupied with sadness.

I fall down a flight of stairs at home carrying a flimsy box of books too heavy and too poorly packed. I’m not paying attention.  Two days later I take the dogs for their morning walk and fall on the ice I did not see. I’m weary with bad news, not paying attention to my footing, not seeing the red ball sun rising over the white birch trees on the morning walk.

Like those weary travelers who had no control over their world, “my head is wet with the midnight dew,” even at sunrise.  I slip on the ice. My dog licks my face, calling me back to where my body is – on the ground on a street corner two blocks from the home we share here in Minnesota.

Maggie knows nothing of what’s happening in Japan.  All she knows is that she’s here, that her clumsy, preoccupied friend has fallen, that he needs some love… and that the sunrise is beautiful.

I’m a long way from the home I would like – a planetary home where tsunamis do not leave people homeless and where nuclear reactors do not explode or melt down –and I always will be. When my Japanese neighbors fall into chaos and horror, I can try to lick the faces with charitable giving and prayers but only from afar.  But I cannot change what has happened.

I pray that those who sang the slave songs, the spirituals and the blues as they traveled with a great weariness may become my mentors, and that, in some way, their hopeful tones will rise from the coastal people of Japan. Our enslaved American forebears dug deep inside themselves to a richer, truer place that called them home to each other and to a dignity the world could not take away. They endured when the objective reasons for hope were in short supply. In the wake of a tsunami, they call a global generation to travel on even as we ache for each other from afar.

“Don’t be weary, traveler, Come along home, come home.  Keep on goin’, traveler, Come along home, come home; Keep a singing all the way, Come along home, Come home.”

Listen to Odetta singing “I’ve been [re]buked and I’ve been scored.”

“Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give your rest.”

News: 24/7

Author C.S. Lewis as a child before his mother's death.

Author C.S. Lewis as a child before his mother's death

“NEWS: 24/7” 

a poem by

Steve

Shoemaker

April 20, 2012

The writer, C.S. Lewis, said he never read the newspapers or owned a TV.  “If any-

thing important happens, someone will always say,”

he claimed. His house was filled with books. The life he led

began each day with prayer, with pen and a notebook,

food, teaching, more writing, then meeting friends for beer

and talk and laughter. 50 books of his appear

in 65 years on this earth. “Just take a look,”

he said, “I’m the last dinosaur you’ll ever see!”

His day of death was not reported on TV:

November 22, 1963.

JFK (R) with big brother Joe Kennedy

JFK with big brother Joe Kennedy

C.S. Lewis’s books have been translated into more than 30 languages and have sold millions of copies. The Chronicles of Narnia are the most popular. having been popularized on stage, TV, radio and film. His book A Grief Observed, an exceptionally honest reflection following the death of the love of his life, Joy Davidman, meant a great deal to me in dealing with my own raw grief. The film Shadowlands was based on A Grief Observed. Lewis was no stranger to the grief that shocked the world in Dallas November 22, 1963, the day he died without the notice he deserved.

 “…God’s demand for perfection need not discourage you in the least in your present attempts to be good, or even in your present failures. Each time you fall He will pick you up again. And He knows perfectly well that your own efforts are never going to bring you anywhere near perfection.”

– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Elie Wiesel on Mormon Proxy Baptisms

Elie Wiesel, Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winning author and survivor of the Holocaust, has called on Mitt Romney to join him in calling on the Church of Latter Day Saints (“Mormons”) to stop baptizing Jews who have died.  I wrote the following comment on the Huffington Post story:

We’re taught, and rightly so, to be respectful of religions and views different from our own. But that does not erase the responsibility to think critically about one’s beliefs and practices or those of others. I have the greatest respect for Elie Wiesel and am grateful to him for exposing a practice that insults every Jew, every Christian, every Muslim, every Buddhist, everyone who could not in good conscience embrace any religion at all, by imposing Mormon baptism. Nothing could be more arrogant. The proxy baptisms are not the only beliefs and practices that deserve thoughtful examination. More troublesome to me is the underlying Mormon assumptions that make the United States of America the very center of all human history – the alleged geography of a real Garden of Eden (in Missouri) and of the Second Coming of Christ (also in Missouri). As much as the proxy baptisms, those beliefs should send chills down the spines of everyone whose God belongs to no one nation, no one culture, no one religion – the God of the heavens and the Earth “Whose ways are not our ways and Whose thoughts are not our thoughts.”

An earlier commentary on the matter (posted earlier) addresses the matter moer fully. It’s a reflection that includes a visit to the Mormon Visitation Center in NYC. Let me know what you think.

The God of American Exceptionalism

Gordon C. Stewart          February 7, 2012

Jacket of My People Is the Enemy

“The stairway smelled of piss….

This [a tenement apartment in East Harlem] was to be my home.  I wondered, for a moment, why. Then I remembered that this is the sort of place in which most people live, in most of the world, for most of the time. This or something worse. Then I was home.”  – William Stringfellow, My People Is the Enemy: An Autobiographical Polemic.

I’ve been holding my breath, wrestling with whether to speak aloud what I hear and see.

I’m a disciple of Jesus, a Christian, in the debt to the bold witness of the late William Stringfellow, lay theologian. I’m also a religious pluralist. I believe with Chief White Calf of the Blackfeet that there is not just one way, there are many sides to the mountain and many paths on which the Divine Mystery is experienced.

I have learned over the years to respect the multiplicity of ways different sides of the mountain experience the living God. I work hard to understand my Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Jewish neighbors. I often experience these discussions as encounters with God whose vastness, like the ocean, is so much greater than any of the tea cups in which we hold a few drops of the sea.

I also know that some forms of religion are just plain nuts. The religion of Jim Jones whose followers drank the purple Kool Aid in shared suicide in the jungle of Guyana is only the most ludicrous example of why we need to join comedian Lewis Black’s raging objection to political distortions of the truth: “You can’t just make s—t up!” Religion represents the best and the worst of the human psyche (the Greek word for ‘soul’).

Joseph Campbell, among others, long ago opened the aperture on my theological camera. He helped me to see that what we are all dealing with, on all sides of the mountain, is myth, the human spirit’s uniquely creative meaning-making activity that expresses both the grandeur and the terror of finite experience. Myth is not the opposite of truth; it is the story that points us beyond ourselves to the transcendent and the eternal.

My way of looking at the world is shaped by a vast variety of voices. Among them are Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose experiences of the horror of the absence of God caused them to poke their fingers in the eyes of prevailing religious traditions whose tidy moral worlds turn God into a cosmic sadist.

Any religion worth its salt in the 21st century has to pass through the existential protests of these thinkers and of the shrieks and cries that still echo across the world from Auschwitz and Buchenwald that poke holes in every theory of a morally ordered universe. The Garden of Eden was lost a long time ago and, in the wake of the closing of the gates to it, any religion has to take account of the human history that looks much more like the trail of tears paved by Cain’s slaying of Abel than like two innocent people in Paradise before the fall.

Yet there is a deep longing for something more tangible, more trustworthy than myth. Something one can touch, see, feel, smell – a story that is not a story but fact. The longing is strongest when we experience great uncertainty and insecurity.

With this perspective, I have been looking again at the fastest growing religion in America, Mormonism, and the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS).

My first experience with the Mormons came quite by accident thirty years ago. I was riding a bus in New York City on my way uptown to visit African-American theologian James Cone at Union Theological Seminary in Harlem when I noticed the sign “Mormon Visitation Center.”  Already stressed by an unfamiliar transit system and feeling quite alone, I decided to get off the bus and take the tour.

Unlike the streets outside that were filled with trash and lit by flashing neon signs, the Visitation Center was spick-and-span. Everything was in perfect order, complete with a hologram of a Mormon family in a tranquil woods sitting in a circle, listening to the white upper-middle-class family’s father sitting on a stump higher than the other members of the family, reading from the Book of Mormon to an enthralled wife and two perfect, obedient, happy children. The hologram elicited two responses. One was amazement. I had never seen or even heard of a hologram. The other was a sense of outrage at the perpetration of a promise that was, in short, nothing but a hologram, the illusionary projection of someone’s idea of Eden that would strike a chord with visitors who long for the lost woods of the Garden of Eden. It offered a world of perfection: orderly, tidy, white, rural – nothing like the urban world on the street outside – the antidote to the realities and complexities of life in New York City.

When I left the Mormon Visitation Center it never crossed my mind that the Mormon vision or mythology would become the fastest growing mythology in America in the 21st Century. I was relieved to get back on the bus on my way to Harlem.

I ask myself now why this is so. I look again at Mormon beliefs and practices to try to understand.

In Mormon teaching, the Garden of Eden was a historical place, and it was not in the Mesopotamian Valley by the Euphrates River, as in the original biblical myth of Genesis. It was in North America…in Missouri .

“According to Joseph Smith [Mormonism’s founder] the Garden of Eden was located in Jackson County, Missouri and following his expulsion from the Garden, Adam traveled northward to a place near modern-day Gallatin, Missouri. Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt stated that the name Adam-ondi-Ahman “is in the original language spoken by Adam, as revealed to the Prophet Joseph” (Journal of Discourses 18:343) – Bill McKeever, Mormon Research Ministry.

It is to this very spot of physical geography that Jesus will return at the Second Coming. None of this is in the realm of myth. It’s fact. You can go there to touch it and  walk on it, knowing that Adam was there long before you and that, after you have walked there, it will prove to be the epicenter of the universe, the very spot where Christ will return.

Why is the Mormon myth gaining such traction in America? And why would I break the code of silence, the well-advised reticence to those of us who share White Calf’s belief that the Divine Mystery is known differently on different sides of the mountain?

Some things are too important to leave unaddressed. The Mormon mythology is quintessentially American.

The myth that America is the center of transcendent goodness and power, the world’s epicenter, the original Garden of Eden and the place of Christ’s return, the people of “Manifest Destiny”, the one exception to the rising and falling of empires and nations, is losing its hold on us at home and abroad. We are losing our sense of innocence. Yet there lurks the nostalgia for the secure home provided by the illegitimate marriage of Jesus’ gospel of the Kingdom of God with America, “the City set upon a hill” of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and of John Winthrop’s sermon to English settlers on their voyage to the new world.

As Nietzsche knew, such gods don’t die easily, even when they’re already dead. When the town crier takes his lantern into the darkened town square at midnight crying “God is dead! God is dead!” in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, the rest of the town regarded him as a madman. But it would be only a matter of time before the news would reach their ears.  It was the god of Western civilization that Nietzsche’s madman pronounced dead.

When something dear to us dies, especially when it is the prevailing religious myth of a nation about its own holiness and invulnerability, we become like starving people who continue to look in the same old bare cupboard for bread.

What better place to go than the reassurance that America is still the center – the ancestral home of a real man named Adam, who came complete with his own (now lost language, the special place to which Jesus (who visited the lost tribe of Israel in the Americas between his resurrection and bodily ascension into heaven) will return? When the Christian story the story is concretized to a finite, mortal place, it power as myth – pointing us beyond ourselves to the transcendent and the eternal – is not only lost but turned on its head.

There are many sides of the mountain, and it behooves all of us to approach people of different religious traditions with open ears and open minds. But approaching another’s religious beliefs respectfully does not require that we pretend not to see what we see or that we conclude that all religions are really the same or that one opinion is as good as another in the free market of religious truth claims. “You can’t just make stuff up!”

Let me say without hesitation that what I see in Mormonism is but the most exaggerated illustration of the idolization of the nation that includes so much of the American churches of whatever stripe where the nation is enshrined as God and where patriotism is the unspoken highest virtue with the cross wrapped in a flag.

The American wars of foreign intervention in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan could not have happened without this widespread faith in American goodness and exceptionalism. It is the cardinal sin that afflicts us across all denominational and religious lines. Whenever the Jesus executed by the Roman Empire becomes the Imperial King of a new empire, those who continue to hear the shrieks and cries of the world that suffers – and who continue to smell the piss on the stairway in the place we call “home”- are obliged to break the silence, violate the code, and get back on the bus to Harlem.